Us people

Josef Hník – Us People


‘Many human passions can be satisfied; never, though, the pleasure of brutality and tyranny.’

Josef Čapek, Written into the Clouds


During the last part of the 19th century, painting as a medium of realist depiction was forced to radically reassess itself, retreat from its traditional role as a ‘window on the world’ and find fresh justification as a way of portraying other realities – ones determined by the artist’s own imagination. One of the main reasons for this upheaval was the invention and development of photography, which gradually took over photography’s function as a visual mediator of human society. The first part of the 21st century is witnessing another revolutionary change in how people capture, share and perceive the world around them. The internet as a global communication medium liberated from the historical constraints of time and material has, over recent years, brought about a kind of ‘Big Bang’ of instantaneously available information, mostly in visual form. Reality photographed and ‘materialised’ on paper has come up against a massive flood of digitally created and electronically disseminated images that often lack a distinguishable origin. It is these ‘rootless’ internet photographs that now predominantly define our ideas about the character of our world. And this despite the fact that it is difficult for us to determine whether their message is doctored fiction rather than a true witness to fact.  

In his thinking, Josef Hník focuses primarily on civilisation symbolised by the human face, body and objects relating to mortality or, on the contrary, to the implicitly sensed transcending of human life. His themes range from the lyrical studio nude and still life to portraits reflecting troubled mental states. His latest series entitled ‘Us People’ explores various forms of brutal violence that has, since time immemorial, been a tragic accompaniment to human history. It is photography that enabled this darkest aspect of our civilisation to become an inseparable part of the iconography of modern humanity. In the present-day ‘avalanche’ of internet visuality, these portraits of human evil are freely available, serving as a cause for serious thought not only with their shocking content but because they circulate unhindered throughout the global communication network. Hník works with these downloaded images in a way that is highly characteristic for him: he projects them on surfaces in a way that they become a scene whose symbolism is enhanced with several further levels of perception. The tension between the uncompromising depiction of human atrocity and its treatment as a plastic and fragmentary ‘reminiscence’ is an important factor here. The tattered pictorial area indicates the vulnerability of each individual life, though also the relentless mechanisms of civilisation’s memory that dissolves personal stories into the ‘great flow’ of human history. Their light-infused, apparition-like appearance refers to their digitally mediated origin, though they also make us sense the (often merciless) transience of everything human. Ultimately, and contrasting with the internet images they are derived from, classical contact photographs are created as a lasting, tangible works of art following on in the tradition of Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’. It isn’t about portraying something alien to us but, on the opposite, about portraying cruelty potentially innate to all ‘us people’.

Richard Drury